Singing blue and seeing red in Mississippi redistricting

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May 19, 2011

A decision in a federal lawsuit gives the state a path to hold 2011 elections, but leaves plenty of unspent ammunition.

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

JACKSON, Mississippi: A panel of three federal judges handed down an initial ruling in Mississippi's NAACP-initiated lawsuit this week, clarifying what maps will be used for this fall's elections but leaving other matters undecided.

Shortly after the second hearings held on the case, the three judges ordered Mississippi to either prepare maps and get preclearance from the U.S. Justice Department by June 1, 2011 – the qualifying deadline for candidates – or to run the 2011 elections under the existing legislative boundaries.

Realistically, the first option isn't available simply because of time constraints, meaning voters will choose their state Senators and Representatives using districts drawn a decade ago with 2000 Census data. The ruling came as a slight surprise, as the public position of the judges after the first hearing was that they were "inclined" to order elections be held under the completed but not approved maps drawn during the 2011 legislative session.

In the session, which ended last month, the House, in Democratic hands by a few votes, and the Republican-held Senate each passed a map for its own seats. The House signed off on the Senate map, meaning it was technically a done deal. However, the Senate refused to approve the House map, saying it was inappropriately partisan and had been drawn to help Dems retain the House more than to represent the state's citizens. In the past, Mississippi's legislature drew maps under a "gentleman's agreement," whereby each chamber did as it liked and got a rubber stamp from colleagues down the hall.

Before this year's session even began, Lieutenant Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican, announced he was discarding that convention and would scrutinize any map the House sent over. House Speaker William "Billy" McCoy criticized the move, saying he intended to respect the Senate's ability to draw their own maps without second-guessing by the House and expected the Senate to adhere to the same tradition.

Time was always precious in Mississippi's redistricting. The state holds off-year elections for legislative and executive seats and is bound by the Voting Rights Act. For the August primaries, candidates needed to file by the first of June and the Justice Department reserved 60 days to review maps. In practice, that meant any map needed to be in Washington, DC for consideration by April 1, 2011, a day that came and went without agreement on the state's internal political borders.

Once the legislature failed to draw maps, a lawsuit brought in federal court by the NAACP took over as the focus of redistricting attention. The petitioners asked for a court order to hold the 2011 elections under the maps the legislature had drawn. Opposition, largely from the state's Republican party and from GOP politicians, asked for an order that elections be held under the 2001 maps or that an outside expert be appointed to start fresh. The decision does hand a bit of a victory to Republicans, who publicly praised the ruling as a victory for state's rights, a mark of respect for the legislature's primacy in handling redistricting, and a practical move given the time horizon.

Still, the decision solves the immediate problem without sorting out redistricting altogether. Mississippi has not yet really addressed her four Congressional seats, and a special session sometime later this year was one suggestion for that matter. Such a session, if it still happens, could now include a second go at legislative maps. Democrats have incentive for this, as current predictions don't favor their chances in the upcoming elections and anything delayed until 2012 could mean fewer votes for them. The court's ruling also stipulated that the legislature may choose to take up redistricting again in 2012.

A related matter concerns when the new maps, once drawn, will go into effect. After the 1990 Census, a similar logjam led to back-to-back election being held in 1991 and 1992. Unable to draw maps in time for the 1991 elections, the old districts were used for a single year and then special elections were held in 1992 once redistricting was complete. Both as a financial burden and a mark of shame, the state has no desire to repeat that. It is not yet clear if the legislature can avoid it. The three-judge panel reserved a decision on special elections to its purview and won't rule until next year.

The worst case scenario would have maps hopefully completed in 2012, yet not going into effect until 2015, when members of both chambers again face election. However, maintaining 2000 Census seats for 15 years in all and for a full half decade after a new Census data set became available is not likely to suit anyone and almost certainly not going to be acceptable to the judiciary.

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